Embracing the farmer’s slop pail

For those of us who lived on a farm during the 1950s, the slop pail was an essential kitchen fixture. Most farmers kept a few pigs and anything not consumed by the family at mealtime was thrown in the pail. Table scraps, potato and carrot peelings, onion skins, celery strings, and any other eatable the dogs didn’t want found a temporary resting place in the pail.

When it was time for evening chores, the slops were dumped in the pigs’ trough to the delight of the porcine characters.

At various times, we had various numbers and colors of pigs. There were red ones, white ones, and black and white pigs. Some were big and some were little.

The only pig we named was a red one called Rusty. He was my sister’s, and she loved him. She knew one day he would land on our breakfast and supper plates, and she vowed her fork would never touch a piece of bacon or a slice of ham that might have been Rusty. For about six months, Jude refused all pork until Mom assured her Rusty was gone.

Our pigs had a huge area in which to roam and a lean-to for shade and protection from the elements. A corner of their pen was designated as the mud hole. On warm summer days, they rolled in the cool mud to their hearts’ content.

Pigs are delicate creatures and sunburn easily, thus the need for a place to wallow in wet mud. It was Jude’s job to fill water pails, put them in the red wagon, and haul them to the pig pen. The pigs had plenty of grass, grain, shelter, water, and slops. In other words, our pigs lived in what could only be described as a barnyard penthouse.

In a previous column I mentioned my fear of Plucky, our best laying hen. Well, my fear of that hen was nothing compared to the sheer terror I felt when approaching the pigs. Everyone referred to me as the house cat because I rarely went to the barn. I was afraid of all the animals except the cats.

My fear developed at a young age as a result of being chased by roosters, butted by calves, and nipped by a ducked called Susan. Understanding my barn phobia, my parents limited farm chores to collecting eggs, filling the cows’ chop boxes, and feeding the pigs.

All I had to do was throw the slop over the fence into the empty trough. There was no need to enter the pen or have close contact with any of the pigs. Sounds like a simple task, right? But it wasn’t just the size of the pigs that scared me, it was their language.

When they saw me approaching with the pail in hand, the squeals, grunts, and snorts that greeted me were terrifying. I was convinced they would crash through the fence and devour me along with their dinner. Realistically, I knew this was impossible, but realism is usually defeated by imagination.

As my heart pounded, I emptied the slop into the trough and ran as fast as I could to the wellhouse. I had to turn on the pump and fill the pail with fresh water for their water trough.

In the few minutes it took me to fetch the water, the pigs had gobbled up their meal and were grunting for more. I usually carried a few apples in my pockets. These I threw as far from the fence as possible, and when the pigs took off, I finished my mission and ran back to the house faster than the pigs ran after the apples. Fear is an amazing motivator.

Well anyway, it’s been 57 years since I carried the last slop pail to the pig pen. When Dad realized nobody was eager to eat the critters Jude made into pets, he called it quits. We had no problem consuming bacon or ham from Callaghan’s Market in the Soo, but it was a different story when it came to devouring our own. Even Dad was hesitant to poke his fork into a piece of ham and slice a sharp knife through it. So eventually the slop pail disappeared, and compost was created from the vegetable peelings that would have gone to the pigs.

All these years later I had an epiphany. While pouring drain cleaner down the kitchen sink one day, it occurred to me what I needed was a slop pail. Not for pigs, of course, but to eliminate the need for toxic cleaners. Even dish detergent swimming among my cups, plates, and pans will ultimately create havoc and give the pipes a thick coat of black sludge.

I scrounged around all the junk piled in the outdoor shed, pulled out an old granite pail, and parked it in the kitchen. Vegetable scraps land in my compost bin, but anything liquid goes in that pail and out the back door. Oh, the freedom of no near neighbors.

I live on the land of my youth and from my kitchen window I see the site of our old pig pen. Only a few fence posts remain as silent sentry to the past, but on quiet summer evenings, I’m sure I hear Rusty grunt as I empty my slop pail. Or it could just be the gentle breeze carrying a distant memory.

Editor’s note: Sharon M. Kennedy of Brimley is a humorist who infuses her musings with a hardy dose of matriarchal common sense. She writes about everyday experiences most of us have encountered at one time or another on our journey through life. Her articles are a combination of present day observations and nostalgic glances of the past.